Love, Hate, Politics, and Faith

Ancient Persia or Modern America?

Delivered March 4, 2023 at B'nai Jeshurun Shabbat Scholar in Residence

Shabbat Shalom!

I’d like to begin my remarks this morning by thanking Pene Raphaely for making this opportunity possible. Pene, you are a dear friend whose support of me and my work is steadfast and I am deeply grateful to you. You are also a loyal and loving sister. Today you sit with your brother Denis for this Shabbat teaching in memory of your brother Tony, z”l, who passed away last September. Tony continued the Rapahely family’s legacy by serving as a pillar of the South African  Jewish community in so many generous ways, notably in his dedication to ensuring access to a Jewish education for all in the community who desired one, and access to a university education for less fortunate students in the new, post-Apartheid South Africa. Along with Tony’s deep commitment to our beautiful tradition, to Jewish storytelling, to Israel, and above all to family - dedicating this program of Torah learning to him is a most fitting tribute, and I am deeply honored to present this teaching in his memory.

We all know each other pretty well so it will come as no surprise to you that when I was a little girl, it was not Esther who I chose to dress up as for Purim. It wasn’t that I didn't see myself as a princess-type. I didn’t see myself as a political activist. 

Let’s back up  around 2500 years:

“Haman then said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction…Accordingly, written instructions were dispatched by couriers to all the king’s provinces to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—and to plunder their possessions.”

Now fast forward to a public announcement from last Thursday, February 23, 2023:

“Join in a day of mass antisemitic action. We are calling on all fighters of truth and justice to take a stand and expose the international clique of parasitic vermin that infest our nation today. A national day of activism is set for February 25th. Make your voices heard loud and clear, that the one true enemy of the American people is the Jew. We refuse to capitulate to the wishes of the anti-white establishment that our race be subverted and controlled by the devil’s chosen few. The people demand White Power.”

Where are we? Back in Persia of the 4th century BCE or here in America in the 21st century? A more somber question might be, has anything changed? I’m here to offer you the bold suggestion that the answer to that question is no, and yes, and maybe.

That there are still people around the world filled with murderous hate directed at Jews and the Jewish people seems to be a stubborn feature of human civilization, one that targets not just Jewish lives but Jewish beliefs about truth and justice, and with those beliefs the lives of many others as well.

However, the resources and tactics with which we respond to the poison of antisemitism and bigotry have expanded, providing us with the opportunity, and the responsibility, to deploy them in our current circumstances. 

Whether and how we do so is up to us. The twist is that in order to identify the tools at our disposal, we have to travel back to our distant, mythic, past, to the story of Mordecai and Esther in the  Persian kingdom of King Ahashverosh. Our guide is the Israeli philosopher, Bible scholar and political theorist Yoram Hazony and his book, The Dawn, in which he reads their story as a template for contemporary Jewish political action.

Purim is a story about exile. The Jewish people are living far from their land, their culture and their God, dispersed throughout a foreign empire whose ways and language they have adopted as their own. Yet, their story is also one of Jewish continuity; of courageous Jewish determination to not only integrate into a host society that is not theirs, but to weave Jewish ideals into its very fabric.

The drama unfolds around the crisis triggered by the decree to kill all the Jews and plunder their property. And while Haman is clearly the evil villain behind this decree, let us ask an obvious, if unpopular, question: why did Mordecai provoke Haman by refusing to bow down to him? 

Bowing down as a sign of respect to a ruler is not prohibited in Jewish tradition, and if Mordecai had been hanging out by the king’s gate as we’re told, he surely had prior occasions to bow down before Ahashverosh, as Esther did in later chapters. In fact, by refusing to honor Haman he’s also offending the king who appointed Haman to his role. And, if Mordecai’s MO until then had been for him and Esther to hide their Jewish identity, why did he decide that this was the issue over which to change course?

In his reading of the story, Hazony sees in the answers to these questions not only the key message of the Book of Esther, but of our entire Jewish mission. 

He notes how in the first two chapters of Esther, the king seeks counsel from an entourage of eighteen advisors, composing his will from a wide variety of perspectives and opinions. In the wake of the assassination plan which Mordecai reported, Ahashverosh becomes paranoid and loses trust in his group of ministers not knowing with whom the breach of loyalty originated. And so he elevates Haman above them all, concentrating power in one person, one voice, one minister. Silencing competing claims to wisdom, banishing alternative approaches to reason, the king locates truth in one single source, making an idol out of Haman and throwing the kingdom into chaos. 

Mordecai’s unwillingness to bow down to Haman is an expression of his deeply ingrained Jewish commitment to democracy and to pluralism, to the multivocal debate over what is right and good. We’re taught that even God spoke at Mount Sinai in 70 languages in recognition of the fact that no one language or set of ideas is intelligible to all people and that community is formed only from the negotiated, partial understandings that we each bring to the public square. To rely on one unbalanced and unchecked position can only lead to unbalanced and unchecked power, which is precisely what Haman appeals to in convincing the king to let him murder the Jews, the people who see through his presumed authority and refuse to prostrate themselves before it.

The Jewish enterprise came into being precisely as a rejection of false gods. And it wasn’t just a family tradition launched by Abraham smashing his father’s idols. In Massekhet Megillah Rabbi Johanan argued, “anyone who rejects idolatry is called a Jew.” To be a Jew is precisely to say that my own views, my own concerns, my own insights are not enough with which to ascertain or promulgate directives for all people. Instead, to be a Jew is to recognize the dignity of each person, the needs of each person, their right to justice and to their own destiny. 

It was during my year of learning with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg that he taught me the real definition of idol worship, which has nothing to do with bowing down to a rock. Idol worship is worshiping anything that we declare unchanging, unyielding, inflexible, unresponsive. We calcify a single belief and in so doing deny the divinely created abundance in our world and the manifold beauty of our minds and our hearts.

Mordecai didn’t only deny Haman’s power, he denied his very right to that power. In this Mordecai represents the essence of Jewish righteousness which is expressed when we use our intellectual and moral freedom to stand up to injustice. Haman’s wish, then, was to eradicate the reminder of his false claims to power which wasn’t just the Jew Mordecai, but Judaism itself. 

The civil rights strategist and democracy activist Eric Ward has argued similarly in suggesting that anti-semitism is at the root of white supremacist ideology, for it is our Jewish commitment to diversity and universal human dignity that threatens their pathological world view. The Tree of Life synagogue shooter exclaimed just as much in his anti-immigrant screed prior to his murderous attack.

Hazony argues that the Torah’s directives to us to destroy the idol worshiping cultures upon entering the land of Canaan can be seen in this light: the purpose was to root out an ideology that obscured the multifaceted nature of truth on which a new Jewish society was to be founded; a dangerous ideology that served as a pretext to moral indifference and to inflicting suffering on those who believed differently. In Hazony’s own words, “Idolatry was amnesia, and against it Judaism strove to make men remember: that murder was evil, that perversion was evil, that right was a tree of life to those who embrace it and wrong would bring certain ruin. Idolatry would teach the Jews to forget, and to forget meant their end as Jews, as individuals and as a people.”

That’s part of the meaning of this very Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor, on which we’re reminded by the Torah reading of our obligation to obliterate Amalek, the archetype of the evil wrought by idols of self-worship. But we’re not only to remember what Amalek did to us by attacking our vulnerable elderly and children as we left Egypt, showing that to them there are no moral constraints on their pursuit of power. We’re to remember that no one possesses a singular, complete truth that can live in isolation from others or as an imposition upon them. If we fail to remember that, we, and our mission, will be lost to history. 

Mordecai’s resistance doesn’t stop with Haman: he puts on mourning clothes and ashes in the king’s court in response to the decree against the Jews, he prods Esther to violate royal restrictions on appearing before the king unsummoned. And, Hazony notes, he does all this in a way that is public and unselfconscious. He walks through public spaces visible and audible in his anguish over the injustice about to happen to his people. He forces others to take note of the travesty, putting their own character to the test, denying them the excuse of “I didn’t know”. He does the same when he’s rewarded with a political appointment and formally has the ear of the king.

Esther needs some convincing, which comes in Hazony’s ironic reading of her exchange with Mordecai. Mordecai says to her, “וּמִ֣י יוֹדֵ֔עַ אִם־לְעֵ֣ת כָּזֹ֔את הִגַּ֖עַתְּ לַמַּלְכֽוּת׃

Perhaps it's in order to save the Jews that you've come to power...” In other words, while you might have a role to play in this urgent moment, you can’t know for sure. And as he reminded her before that, if you stay silent and do nothing, help will come from someone or somewhere else.

What Hazony understands him saying is this: “the Jewish people are going to survive somehow. Of that we’re certain. Their fate is not entirely upon your shoulders.” And precisely by relieving her of the notion that the Jews need her to remain queen no matter what in order to survive, she is moved to take a risk and to act, knowing that it might cost her her crown. In other words, none of us is indispensable to the larger story of the Jewish people which we must believe will be ongoing. Belief in our ultimate survival is core to mustering the will to act, and to inspiring others to act as well. But paradoxically, it’s because none of us are indispensable to that destiny that we can be bold and assertive in engaging with the structures and powers of the political world when our safety is threatened, not knowing if we will succeed or fail.

For if Esther - and we - remain unmoved by the plight of innocent lives at risk, Jewish or otherwise; unresponsive to cries for safety and for dignity; then we turn our own hearts into stone, blinding ourselves to anything but our own perspectives, becoming the very idols against which we are called to rise in protest.

Many have noted the absence of God in the book of Esther. What’s also noteworthy is the absence of despair in the wake of God’s nonappearance. Without any signal of God’s support, without relying on the battlefield strategies of prayer and study, Mordecai takes decisive political initiative and restores a divine sense of justice to the world, modeling for us that civil resistance and political engagement are among the most profound expressions of Jewish identity and values. By rolling up his sleeves and immersing into the world of political action, a world which can become morally compromising and personally sullying, Mordecai burnishes the image of Jewish spiritual leadership. As Rav Huna said most provocatively in the Talmud: “One who occupies themselves only with the study of Torah is as if they have no God.”

Given the realities of our current and recent political climate here and in Israel, it’s not hard to succumb to the impression that politics is a dirty game of power-plays, in-fighting, backstabbing and deal-making that often seems, and may in fact be, antithetical to Jewish spiritual and moral values. One of the saddest and most consequential losses resulting from these years of toxic political partisanship and debased political leadership is the disinclination among young people to engage in and commit to public service.

And yet, in the Torah and later rabbinic literature it is those who immerse themselves in the perilous worlds of power and influence, those who are willing to negotiate the inevitable challenges to their moral ideals precisely in order to advance them, who are labeled “tzadikim”: Noach, Lot, Yaakov, Mordecai – all were called righteous ones not for their impeccable moral track records but for their willingness to try to build a world of limitless hope even with limited, flawed human tools. As Kohelet says with some resignation, “There are righteous people who perish through their righteousness, and there are the wicked who flourish by their wickedness. Be not overly righteous…”

Mordecai’s refusal to bow down follows this long and powerful line of disobedience and defiance of injustice validated by the biblical stories of Abraham, Moses, the midwives in Egypt and the prophets - those who harnessed the power of their conscience to challenge rulers both human and divine and express our tradition’s priority not just of political independence, but moral independence. In this 50th year since his death, one can’t help but be reminded of Rabbi Heschel’s  unyielding insistence on worshiping his God in the public square of demonstrations, social action and human rights advocacy. And of his rabbinic proteges like Marshal Meyer whose own relentless protest of injustice still inspires this congregation’s ideals and actions. 

American Jews have long maintained our tradition of social activism. Early immigrants brought their protest skills honed in Europe while resisting injustices there and applied them to numerous issues here in America. Fair food pricing, workplace safety, Zionism, civil rights, women’s rights, refugee and immigrant rights, marriage equality, gun violence, climate crisis – the Jewish community has been a consistent and vocal presence in the efforts to build just and peaceful societies, notwithstanding the recent rightward shift of Jewish political views - not just in Israel but in North America as well. Still, today we have 10 Jewish senators and 27 Jewish members of the House of Representatives. And a Jewish “Second Gentleman”. We have scores of Jewish nonprofits dedicated to urgent social causes.

Understandably, the focus of American Jewish concern today is on rising antisemitism, more normalized, more brazen, and more violent than ever, echoing the threats of ancient Persia as we heard in the grotesque call for a national day of hate. It comes in a period of intense vilification and oppression of the supposed “other” – people of color, women, gay and trans people which has created a culture of severe polarization fracturing families, friendships and communities.

As Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, expressed last week in an Op-Ed he penned in response to the Day of Hate, our typical Jewish communal responses to antisemitism don’t seem to be making much impact. Demanding apologies from and shaming perpetrators, blaming political adversaries for creating cultures of hate, fortifying our institutions with armed guards, rallying people for protests and demonstrations, even calling for heightened Jewish pride – he argues that those approaches have limited impact and won’t address the persistence of hatred and the persistent vulnerability of the hated.

What he does advocate for is rooted in the political engagement that unfolds in the scroll of Esther, that is, a strategy of investing Jewish energy in the infrastructure of democracy, in relationships with law enforcement, with the criminal justice system, with local and national political leaders and with religious leaders of all faiths, building partnerships and campaigns that transcend shifting political winds and that spread the burden of combating racism to shoulders beyond just the Jewish community. 

What Yehuda calls for, not just here in America but also in Israel given the gravity of the current political crisis there and its dangerous implications, is deeper Jewish investment - of time, money, effort, even risk - in the “unsexy” work of solidifying the pillars of democracy: free and fair elections, voting rights, the peaceful transfer of power, proper checks and balances on political authority. As we know, when a single person’s safety and dignity and freedom is under threat, everyone’s is. Even, and especially, God’s.

I confess this is a hard sell not just to those of us disenchanted with the promise of political activism but to a generation overly individualistic and narrowly communitarian. Even Mordecai seemed to struggle to enlist others in his strategy of political activism. As Hazony notes, we know of no others who joined his refusal to bow down to Haman, or who protested with him at the palace gate. Other than fasting, the Jews had to be organized for their defensive action by Mordecai himself. Even once they triumphed over their enemies and the festival of Purim was declared, the text reveals that a second letter had to be sent to the community urging them to observe it, and that Mordecai was beloved by a “multitude” of the people, suggesting that others rejected him.

And yet the lessons from Jewish history are sobering. In era after era of threats to Jewish physical and spiritual safety, approaches that dismissed aggressive social and political engagement in favor of passive appeasement and reliance on divine intervention would have meant catastrophe. Hazony credits Mordecai with casting the mold for leaders like Matityahu against the Greeks, and for the daring rabbinic principle that transferred the source of Jewish decision-making from God to human beings, paving a path to survival from the days of the Roman conquest through to our very own.

Later this afternoon we’ll examine Mordecai and Esther’s legacy for a different, though related, challenge to Jewish continuity - that of our personal, cultural and spiritual continuity in an increasingly diverse and fluid world of identity and belonging. 

For now, I’ll end with what might be the most dramatic takeaway from the Purim story: a warning NOT to walk in God’s ways. The Book of Esther teaches us not to hide our faces from injustice as God hid in this tale. For should we look away, not only would God be unable to hear and respond to our cries when our hearts quiver and break, but, worse than that, we ourselves would be unable to hear and respond to the cries of the vulnerable around us. And were that to come to pass, what purpose would our survival serve?

Shabbat Shalom